Sunday, May 22, 2011

Krems, 05-07may11

The donaufestival plays out over two consecutive weekends in Krems, a town sixty minutes away from Vienna by train. Krems has been transformed in recent years with cultural spaces breaking out in an old tobacco factory (Kunsthalle) and a former monastery (Klangraum Krems Minoritenkirche) and has dragged a type of city-based arts culture to a picturesque town on the banks of the Danube or, as they would have it, the Donau.

The previous weekend’s line up included esoteric delights such as John Cale, WU LYF and James Blake as well as the gallery exhibitions, performance art and theatrical pieces that continue over to this weekend.

News at the end of last year that Carla Bozulich (formerly of Ethyl Meatplow and The Geraldine Fibbers, now a sonic adventurer both solo and with her Evangelista group) would not only be curating parts of the second weekend, but also putting together a one-off performance to take place in the Minoritenkirche was certainly the hook that reeled me in.

Entitled ‘Eyes & Ears 5: Under The Skin’ it would continue a series of site specific performances that Carla has put together, and use the resonant monastic space to its full potential, rather than having the stage as the sole focal point. In that respect it worked wonderfully, the audience on being allowed to enter wandering between players arranged around the room, with films projecting across the space onto side walls, and also so that flickering images cascaded down the central pillars, encasing us as though in a cage of static electricity.

Then, with the rap of a drum, Carla entered dragging a gong, the musicians leaving their perches to join the full collective on stage (some returning to the floor later to mirror on-stage drum clash, or to offer a mid-set trumpet vigil). Following the entrance, elements of her regular performance weaved in, such as using a child’s mini-microphone toy to sing through her guitar pick-ups [below] like a wailing widow about to turn her mind to vengeance. Baby, That’s The Creeps from the astonishing 2006 Evangelista LP allowed her to go walkabout, descending into the crowd like a preacher; all that’s missing is the hand placed on foreheads and the subsequent flailing limbs.

That is what Carla captures so well in her music, an outsider-art hunger firing practically Pentecostal turbulence. If you’ll forgive me quoting myself, I said in a prior review that “When fully flaunted, [Carla’s voice] is like a feral growl contained in a rickety cage; burnt yet eager, sharing the kind of ragged timbre one might associate with the Rev. C.L. Franklin as he looms over a pulpit roaring the gospel.” That gives a sense of the dark and tattered melodrama just within the music and thus a visual theatricality can be interlaced without it feeling too ‘forced’.

As I say though, as much as it is a chance for Carla to perform this exclusive work, the festival also allowed her the opportunity to showcase both her contemporaries and her heroes. In the case of the latter, the first night was top heavy with them, both Laurie Anderson and Lydia Lunch appearing in the Messegelände main hall: Halle 1.

In what was essentially a full live performance of Laurie Anderson’s latest album Homeland, washes of slender synth ambience underpinned stories, parables and jokes essaying the ten post-9/11 years. At one point, Anderson sat in an oversize armchair speaking to us as though we were grandchildren eager to learn about life during wartime mostly through being on a promise of some toffees. The piercing moments when Anderson picks up her violin act as the start, finish and ‘turn-tape-over’ moments for a set that is otherwise like a ninety minute hypnosis reel.

Later Lydia Lunch also offered a performance of an entire LP, in her case her 1980 debut Queen Of Siam (apparently for the first time, although a tour will follow), and was a much livelier watch; ‘no wave’ era rock n’ roll delivered with a strident PVC boot. Lunch’s group offer a post-punk take on Broadway swing, a gothic cocktail jazz, over which Lunch growls and sways. The highlight of the set was when Atomic Bongos fired out, inspiring here a dancing stage invasion from our curator.

Offering a similar vibrant spirit, despite also now being of ‘veteran’ status, was Marc Ribot and his group Ceramic Dog ( Messegelände Halle 2). Ches Smith running his drum stick along the edge of a cymbal, Shahzad Ismaely pressing at his bass guitar and Ribot tickling his strings so they twinkle; such were the beginnings before they moved into more robust territory, unleashing an unhinged part-surf-part-Hendrix-part-fusion-freak-out stripped down and sinewy blues.

Ribot’s set was certainly a fine way to close the first evening but possibly not quite as impressive as its opening act. Cult-like propaganda videos, golf tutorials, the dark thoughts of unknown children captured on found Talkboy tapes featured among the collaged ‘samples’ that play out in synchronicity on a screen behind The Books (Klangraum Krems Minoritenkirche) [above]. These found visuals and sounds are the kind of foundations upon which our three players build their jazz-trained whimsy beyond-New-Age expanse towards a 21st century folk music celebrating the technology as well as the spirit of the age. For Free Translator, the lyrics of an old folk song are filtered through a number of online translators, through many a language, a dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards phrasing coming out the other side.

Pretty sprightly stuff but, despite this as the kick-off; dense noise and intense sound collage was also well represented at the festival. Hiss Tracts (Minoritenkirche) grouped members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fly Pan Am and Growing to offer chimes, rolling bells and a terrifying haunted rush. Their half hour piece wandered shimmering like a river and before too long the drone was all enveloping, before eventually petering out to bird song and black.

The darkness continued over at the Evangelische Kirche. Like Hiss Tracts, Tim Hecker has a dark undercurrent but with far more glimpses of light, a sense of hopefulness shimmering out of his deep-think drone. Moving between apocalyptic lows and ethereal highs, a strange divinity occurred perhaps through his interactions with the organ sound.

The following day at Minoritenkirche, Barn Owl would also offer dark soundscapes, although these were evocative of the desert, and of tribalist mysticism. One guitar delved into the underbelly, whereas the other overarched a light swirling with the occasional vocal howl; like Morricone in a dust bowl sky darkened by the swirl.

Another intensive sonic experience the festival offered was former Cabaret Voltaire man and field-recording troubadour Chris Watson who offered a live performance (Kunsthalle) entitled ‘A Journey South’. Less a gig than it was lecture and slideshow, Watson talked through his experiences recording on location in the Ross sea, Antarctica, at the start of last year detailing the transformation of sea ice from solid to fluid in the Austral summer season. Interesting as this was, his collection of recordings such as pressure ridges, glacial caving, melt water and deep ocean current were best experienced as a sound collage installation running throughout the festival in the same room. Invited to lie down on cushions, the quadraphonic sounds attacked and doused as water and ice collided, capturing the ebb and flow as a force of seismic change rather than something gentle and calming.

Another act at the festival offered a similar intensity to the likes of Hecker and Barn Owl, only adding a sense of playfulness, was Gambletron and her ‘Extreme Karaoke set’ ( Messegelände Halle 2) where members of the audience chose the tracks that they would then re-interpret live with noise artiste Lisa Gamble. Watching a keen Carla Bozulich throw herself into a George Michael re-invention was certainly the highlight, despite the best efforts of the lay punters. Certainly a niche product but the right environment for it.

If anything, what the ‘noise’ acts were missing was a beat. Factory Floor [above], however, were on hand (Halle 2) to offer both intensity and pulse; their incessant palpitations underpinning a detached brutal malevolence. Bows attack guitars, vocals are moaned out like injury, beats pulsate like heart attack and when they are on form they ensnare like a venus fly trap.

If this festival bill sounds a bit unyielding dark, then acts later in the weekend offered some lighter relief. Electro flavour of the month, Gold Panda (Halle 2) [below] uplifted without being mindlessly euphoric, Snow & Taxis being a giddy highlight in this respect, while Mount Kimbie (Halle 1) overcame technical difficulties and a dull first impression to seep themselves in slowly.

The Irrepressibles (Halle 1) were certainly very different from anything else on the bill, but went down a treat. My only previous encounter with them was at a cold and wet Bandstand Busking event at Victoria Park last year. There were only about thirty watching, but even in more stripped down conditions it was clear from their choreographed movement that there was more to them than just (just!) the grandiose chamber pop sound. So here they presented their ‘Mirror Spectacle’, reflections making it appear as the more than just (just!) the 9 of them, in their full fallen angel/marionette kit and make-up caboodle.

Death From Above 1979 used the same space (Halle 1) with just the two in the personnel. Back five years after calling it a premature day, bass (and sometimes synth) combined with the drum set to fire out a red hot pop thrash. In Halle 2, Candelilla also offered a power pop style, without being as one dimensional in pace. From the Heavens To Betsy end of Riot Grrl in spirit, the interweaving vocal lines captivated with the simplest of tools.

As the festival drew to a close on the Saturday night, electro and synth ruled the roost, with Ladytron (Halle 1) promoting their new ‘Best Of’ LP with, as you might imagine, a set crammed with career highlights. Had they asked me to write their set list to my specification, I’d have likely come up with something similar to them (although I’m Not Scared would have been very welcome). Early numbers betrayed a slight rustiness, their last record proper ‘Velocifero’ having come out three years ago with live performances few and far between in the last two years, but they soon warmed up to the task, Discotraxx and Destroy Everything You Touch being distinct highlights.

Three days in then, one o’clock in the morning and Bordeaux’s Kap Bambino (Halle 2) are tasked with closing out the festival. No wind down is allowed though as Caroline Martial rips across the stage, like a pocket version of bubblegum and biker leathers period Madonna, bouncing incessantly and making an astonishing impact for their time slot as the room succumbs to dancing with an abandon not seen in the three days hitherto. So, after a weekend that has often been about the art of music, we are brought to a flurrying dervish of a climax by a band for whom the body response is of equal validity to the effect upon the mind.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Nimble round the neck

Meaghan Burke, Dead Western.
Vienna Rhiz. 04may11.

Despite being a native of New York, Meaghan Burke is, as a result of living in Vienna for a number of years, being asked to represent the city’s pop scene at the Popfest Wien free festival. This is the warm-up and it is clear that the anomaly is two-fold: her being merely an adopted daughter, but also that the music she makes is only on the barest of nodding terms with ‘pop’.

That said there are hi-jinks in her business, an embroidered, fresh-faced charm; the manner in which she beams, sporting the ivory being a facial equivalent of Doris Day greeting the day’s business with a windmill slap of a thigh.

Yet she marries this innocence with regular dips into Diamanda Galas style melodrama, the voice flitting and swooping like a swallow, elasticising from trills to treacle. The other act this evening, Dead Western, do something a little similar in that respect, but their singer Troy Mighty’s facial mugging whilst exaggerating his vocal depth only succeeds in grating rather than beguiling. Meaghan Burke’s singing style feels much more natural, and it thus follows that her lyrics about bed bugs and such pass under the radar of irritation.

What might not beat the radar for some listeners is that this is very much a voice and cello performance, with no looping and no gradation. There is not even a reliance on heavy bowing to layer a warming underbelly, the neck of her instrument more often plucked or beaten.

Yet despite this plain set-up, the sound is agile and lively, moving across smoky blues, nimble jazz and scattergun torch song and back with barely a blink.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

goodbye dry eyes...

Notes from the Departure Lounge:

John Maus died over the weekend at the age of 67 after losing his battle against cancer. The name might not mean much to you, and it's possible that his stage name of John Walker won't reverberate that much louder to your ears.... but Maus was the founder member, guitarist and original lead singer of the Walker Brothers. The band was subsequently, and more famously, fronted by the honeyed baritone of their bassist, Noel Scott Engel.... that's Scott Walker to you and me.

Scott Walker is probably my favourite singer of all time. I love the way that he turned his back on a life of proto-Beatles pop adulation to write and perform songs of existentialism and death and Brecht and Brel covers to an increasingly baffled teen audience; an audience that, not surprisingly, soon deserted him for less complicated pleasures. Scott Walker's later career has seen him become a virtual recluse, producing an album at a rate of less than one a decade, chasing a muse that seems increasingly bleak and inaccessible and, famously, uses things like a side of pork as a percussion instrument. All a pretty far cry from the golden years of the Walker Brothers. Songs like "Make it Easy on Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Any More)" are certainly melancholy, but that lush instrumentation and the golden voice meant that the band reached an audience of millions.

Knowing the direction that Scott Walker's career took, it's tempting to see John's role in the band, together with drummer Gary, as being nothing more than supporting musicians who got very, very lucky. There's a scene in the Scott Walker documentary, "30 Century Man", where the band are sitting enjoying tins of brown ale and talking about why they're in the band. John and Gary talk about the money and the girls; Scott looks straight down the camera, unsmiling, and says that he's in it for the music, and I believe him. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was "musical differences" that broke the Walker Brothers up in 1968. They reformed successfully with "No Regrets" in 1975, but the different agendas of the band members were laid bare on 1978s "Nite Flights". There are 12 songs on the album, and each member of the band contributed four. The first four were by Scott, and they are a clear signal of the direction that was to shape his subsequent career: dark, oblique and featuring a song ("The Electrician") that seems to be about torture. The jump from that into far more conventional "The Death of Romance" by Gary could scarcely be starker.

Of course, for all that their might be more than a grain of truth in that assumption about the roles played within the band, John tells a different story in his version:

"I was always the leader of the band. I was the one who said, 'Let's do this, let's do that.' I spent a great deal of time making sure that the group would make incredible music. Most people don't realise that it was I who chose the songs that would become The Walker Brothers' biggest-selling singles..... I was aware that things had changed a lot: Scott had become the lead singer of the group... Now that he was singing lead, I enjoyed the opportunity to create some unusual harmonies, something I had never done before. We knew that we each had an important role, and felt responsible to each other, with one goal in mind, which was to make good records that were unique for the time."

It's also worth nothing that John recorded a version of Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away" in 1967 (it's the title track of his album of that year).... Scott recorded his much more famous version for Scott 3 a whole two years later in 1969......